A Christmas Bell

Today, 27 December, the Otago Daily Times informs us that on this day in 1851 the bell for First Church bell arrived in Dunedin. In fact, according to the Otago Witness of that very date, the bell was already in place, hanging from a purpose-built wooden tower. It was quite separate from the original church – a small wooden structure to the south-west – deemed to be of insufficient strength to bear the weight of the 3 cwt (hundredweight) or 152.41 Kg bell.

Cast in the Bell Foundry of C & G Mears, Whitechapel, London, the bell is inscribed thus:

TO THE FIRST CHURCH OF DUNEDIN

THE REVEREND THOMAS BURNS, MINISTER,

FROM A FEW FRIENDS OF THE FREE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND

Described by the Otago Witness as a ‘seasonable’ gift, the report not only expresses gratitude from the Colonists of Otago but also indicates the existence of a predecessor, kindly donated by the neighbourly John Jones Esq of Matanaka, Waikouaiti whose own settlement predated the 1848 Free Church Colonists.

The Christmas Bell of 1851 no longer tolls the hours of the work day, nor calls the faithful to worship, but remains prominently displayed in the grounds of First Church of Otago, firmly fixed to a stone plinth. And on that stone plinth is fixed a plaque declaring some important historic detail, borne out in the Otago Witness report …

Although the wooden bell tower was appropriately located atop a prominent hill, that hill was then known as Church Hill, the future site for First Church of Otago, designed by R A Lawson in neo-Gothic style and completed in 1873. But for generations of Dunedinites the locality is known as Bell Hill – and the bell remains, albeit silent, to assert that.

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Myth Making & Myth Busting: the case of Wain’s Hotel, Princes Street, Dunedin.

An astonishing fragment of history flashed from my Twitter feed yesterday: the Mercure Dunedin Hotel is 148 years old! Really? Both astonished and impressed that Dunedin should have such a globalised foothold in the 19th century hospitality industry, I replied to  Mercure Dunedin’s tweet, exhorting the tweeter to ‘fess up’: Reveal the true identity of a grand old dame I knew by her original name. And so, back came the reply, “The Wains Hotel” of course.

Of course – everyone knows that Wains Hotel is ‘rebranded’ Mercure Dunedin, don’t they? Everyone, that is, except the person who wrote the content for the Mercure Dunedin website. No mention, whatsoever, of the name by which that outstanding, eye-catching, ornately articulated expression of Victorian architecture has graced Princes Street for as long as anyone can remember, and longer. And the claim to ‘148 years old’ stretches the truth so far it borders on myth – which is just a wee bit too far methinks! Here’s why …

Frank Tod’s 1984 publication, “Pubs Galore, History of Dunedin Hotels 1848 – 1984” credits Andrew Moir with the July 1862 opening of Moir’s Family Hotel on the east side of Manse Street. It was then, 148 years ago “… one of the largest hotels in the town and offered first-class accommodation.” These days, the stained glass windows of a Mercure meeting room grace the Manse Street wall of this room. Curiously, these days, there’s no evidence of an hotel entrance on this side of Manse Street.

In 1864, that’s 146 years ago, Tod writes that Job Wain took possession of Moir’s premises and renamed them ‘Wain’s Hotel’. However, the entry for Mr Job Wain in The Cyclopaedia of New Zealand, Volume 4, Otago and Southland records that he “…opened a hotel in Manse Street” in 1863 – that’s 147 years ago!

Job Wain’s enthralling life history must, for the moment, be set aside as a subsequent blog topic. Suffice to say, he is recorded by Tod as the licensee of his own establishment from 1866 until 1873, and again from 1885 until 1889. However, the Wain’s Hotel which still graces 310 Princes Street, Dunedin was not built until 1878 – that’s 132 years ago!

Most licensed premises of any significance or proportion in this period of history in this part of the world, at least, played host to numerous groups and societies. Wain’s Hotel was no exception. Frank Tod describes Dunedin’s first Press Club occupying a suite of rooms wherein the editors and reporters of various local newspapers met, and a library was established. Thomas Bracken, poet, author of the New Zealand National Anthem’s five verses, and then editor of the Saturday Advertiser numbered among these journalist patrons. Appropriately, one of the Mercure’s two meeting rooms is named in his honour. But Tod ‘fudges’ the record somewhat, offering only a vague decade – the 1870s – during which the Press Club occupied their suite of rooms in Wains. Would those rooms have been in what was originally Moir’s Family Hotel – old Wains – on Manse Street, or new Wains, built 1878, in Princes Street? The investigative plot thickens and the myth busting process intensifies.

For the greater part of her illustrious life during which Wain’s Hotel was known as such, there are at least two other family names associated with the business. The Hazlett family owned Wain’s for more than 35 years before selling to the Farrys in 1962. Corporate ownership of this now historic Dunedin landmark began 40 years ago when it was purchased by Dominion Breweries – but we still knew her as “Wain’s”. Thank you, DB. Not a myth in sight and ‘busting’ pertained only to after-hours drinkers in the belief that they deserved ‘a DB’.

The Bible that went to war …

Some of us who inherit more copies of The Bible than we’re ever likely to need, tend to store them, politely and respectfully on a bookshelf, in sentimental acknowledgment of their former owners. Collectively, they express unique aspects of those former owners’ histories:  records of achievement at Sunday School, or the day school Scripture class; departure from a congregation or community; a wedding gift; or a school-leaver’s presentation copy, complete with school crest embossed on the front cover.

There’s one particular bible which sits almost inconspicuously among just such a collection; its brown leatherette cover shows signs of wear and its size belies its significance. On the fly leaf there’s an inscription which reads, quite simply, “John Fergus Ross with love from Mother 24.6.43”. The only indication of provenance is a retailer’s sticker, “Hyndman’s, Dunedin” on the front recto endpaper.

Then, in an altogether different hand, not the exquisite fountain pen of ‘Mother’ but in post-war ballpoint, the recipient appends: “Carried by me in my battledress pocket throughout the war” followed by “William Thomas Fergus Ross, Love from Father Feb 1977”.

In these few tantalizing lines we are made aware that this small copy of the Scriptures has passed through the hands of three generations. John Fergus Ross did indeed survive the war, returned home to raise his own family and was still living in 1977. So much for the obvious. But what of that which isn’t obvious and raises more questions than there are immediate answers?

The date, 24.6.43, appears to lack any significance beyond its falling within the period of the Second World War. It was neither John Ross’s birthday (23 October), nor his wedding anniversary (1 July 1939). However, there is a letter in the family’s personal history collection, dated 1st July 1943, which offers a clue.  It’s an intensely personal and poignant letter from an adoring aunt to a special nephew, likely penned in a quiet moment of reflection after a family celebration of his wedding anniversary.

She writes: There were one or two things I wanted to say to you if there had been an opportunity – (though probably I wouldn’t have said them even if there had been!) … I know it is a satisfaction for you to go overseas & that you have to go – but you are leaving some very sad hearts behind you … There is no man in the Army, Navy or Air Force who will receive a warmer welcome on his return than you. John – you have no idea how we hate you having to go. You will always be in our thoughts. I am convinced that whatever happens to one the only thing to do is to hold on to one’s trust in God. Much love from Aunt Z.

Another letter in the family’s personal collection  – this one from Army Headquarters, Wellington – solves the date problem. On 23 December 1939, Ross, John Fergus, 611199, was commissioned in the New Zealand Scottish Regiment. The day before he resigned that commission on 25 June 1943, to join the ranks on 26 June 1943 as Private Ross in the 23rd Battalion, 2nd NZ Expeditionary Force, his mother inscribed the little bible. Her only son was off to war!

John Ross’s army serial number proved a lucky one. Or was it the bible that never left his battledress pocket, together with the wedding anniversary day letter’s entreaty to trust in God, that ensured his safe return? Not least among this soldier’s survival stories was the Battle of Monte Cassino.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

Otago Anniverary Day observations

Yesterday was supposedly an official holiday, just one day short of the actual anniversary, today, 23 March. The suburbs were eerily quiet and Dunedin’s CBD exuded a calm, relaxed atmosphere. Our regular lunch cafe was closed, as were many businesses. Only the optimistic donned white shirt and tie but the Dunedin City Council was serious in its Anniversary Day observance  – parking meters were in Sabbath mode – that is to say, not trading. Predictably, and in best Presbyterian response, all street parking spaces were full.

Even the hallowed grounds of First Church, that enduring testament (pun not intended) to the foundation of the Free Church settlement of Otago in 1848, were well patronised with ‘worshippers’ of a sort.  A heavily committed game of ‘touch’ (rugby, that is) between a glorious mix of age, size and gender brought a wry smile to the face of this regular passer-by and, co-incidentally, descendant of Presbyterian early settlers to Otago. One cannot help but wonder quite how the settlement’s spiritual leader, the Reverend Dr Thomas Burns, would have viewed this 2010 observance of Anniversary Day.

At least some of the regular flock was in attendance. More impressively, they were young – at least under 25 from my opposite-side-of- Moray Place perspective.  I’m sure Burns would have nodded in appreciation, before he frowned, first in disbelief then at his own lack of understanding. Not only were these ‘worshippers’ engaged in a form of sport yet to be invented in England, but the people themselves were of Pacific Island descent. For some decades now, this local immigrant group has worshipped in greater numbers at First Church than the descendants of Burns original flock. How ironic, that on 23 March 1849, the settlement’s first anniversary, Thomas Burns railed against the profanity of sport. Such festive celebrations kept all but some 60 pious souls from the service of thanksgiving he called that day.

By Jennie Coleman  23.03.10